ERWIN — The mystery of Unicoi County Deputy Sheriff E.E. Gillis was quickly solved, and it appears that reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated.
Last week, the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department received information on Gillis from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, a nonprofit organization that records and commemorates the service and sacrifice of law enforcement officers in the U.S. The fund was looking to corroborate Gillis’ service with the sheriff’s department.
Information on Gillis came to the Fund’s attention after information about the circumstances of his death was sent to the organization last year by an amateur historian. The information sent to the Fund included copies of three brief reports from out-of-state newspapers, all of which ran on Dec. 26, 1913, detailing an altercation between Gillis and three men in the Devil’s Creek area of the county.
According to these reports, on Dec. 24, 1913, Gillis had taken Jack Edwards into police custody. Two of Edwards’ friends, Harris Tilson and Sam Grindstaff, attempted to free Edwards from Gillis’ custody and a fight ensued.
“Edwards was under arrest on a minor charge when Tilson and Grindstaff attempted to liberate him. They closed in on the deputy with knives,” a report from the Dallas Morning News states.
According to the reports, Gillis shot and killed Edwards and inflicted potentially fatal gunshot wounds to Tilson and Grindstaff. The deputy was severely and fatally stabbed during the battle, the reports state.
“The officer opened fire on the three men and was fatally stabbed,” a report from The Atlanta Constitution States.
“Deputy Sheriff Gillis was stabbed and doctors say he cannot live,” an article from The Rockford Daily Register-Gazette states.
However, the report run by The Dallas Morning News did provide Gillis with a glimmer of hope.
“Harry Tilson and Samuel Grindstaff received bullet wounds which will probably result fatally and Deputy Sheriff E. E. Gillis was so severely cut he may die,” that report stated.
On an informational form sent to the UCSD from The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, Gillis’ date of death was marked as Dec. 25. 1913. Officials in the UCSD said the correspondence from the Fund was the first anyone in the department had heard of Gillis’ death.
After becoming aware of the situation involving Gillis, officials with the UCSD planned to honor him in the same way they have with other department officers or law enforcement officers originally from Unicoi County who have been killed in the line of duty — by having a plaque made, one to hang in the department’s hallway and one to present to the officer’s family. Department officials were hopeful that Gillis still had family in the area not only to accept the plaque but also to provide information about the deputy.
However, UCSD officials learned Wednesday morning that honoring Gillis for his sacrifice in the line of duty wouldn’t be a possibility. As it turns out, Gillis lived a quarter of a century after he was attacked.
UCSD Administrative Assistant Robie Sullins said Unicoi County Register of Deeds Debbie Tittle saw an article in the Wednesday edition of the Johnson City Press about Gillis and went to work. Tittle pulled deeds and found documentation of land transactions from Gillis that occurred after his purported death on Christmas Day 1913, one as soon as a month later.
Tittle knew of some Gillises in the area, and after making some contacts, she and Sullins were able to reach Gillis’ niece, who Sullins said wished to remain unnamed. Gillis’ niece, who still resides in the county, was able to provide a little more information on Gillis and the events of Dec. 24, 1913.
Edgar Ezekial Gillis, born in 1885 and the son of one-time county tax assessor D.S. Gillis, was indeed attacked on Christmas Eve 1913 after taking Edwards into custody, Gillis’ niece told Sullins.
According to Gillis’ niece, however, there were some inaccuracies in the reports from Dec. 26, 1913. She said it was Jack Edwards’ father, George, that was shot and killed during the altercation rather than Jack. Tilson was shot and killed during the fight, but Grindstaff went unharmed, she said.
Sullins said he was told that Gillis suffered severe knife wounds during the scuffle. A family member of Gillis’ arrived at the scene and transported Gillis, via the back of a mule, to his residence. A doctor later arrived at the home and stitched up Gillis’ wounds.
“She told us when that happened, everyone in the family, I guess, had assumed that he would probably die,” Sullins said. “But he didn’t.”
According to his niece, Gillis lived until Dec. 28, 1938, 25 years and a couple of weeks after he was attacked. After his death, he was buried in a small family cemetery in the Rocky Fork area.
“We were just wanting to honor a former law enforcement officer here in the county, but come to find out he went on to live and is buried in Unicoi County,” Sullins said.
Sullins said an item on his Wednesday to-do list was the ordering of a plaque for Gillis. Those plans have been now been abandoned.
“My plan now is I’m going to contact the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund because they had reached out to us, and I think it’s only appropriate we follow up with them, let them know that Officer Gillis was not killed in the line of duty, that he went on to live another 20-something years,” Sullins said.